OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Steve Smith sounds like a man who’s ready to close the door on an NFL career that has spanned 16 seasons and taken him well beyond his 37th birthday.
“Whether you want to or not, you’ve got to move on,” Smith said Wednesday. “It’s part of life. The world still turns.”
The five-time Pro Bowl receiver will play in his 230th NFL game Sunday when the Baltimore Ravens finish the season against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Standing in front of the media wearing a Darth Vader costume, Smith said he’s “about 89 percent sure” it will mark the end of his stellar career.
He used that number because he wears No. 89.
Though Smith spoke with deep emotion during his 10-minute session, he did not formally announce his retirement. He already did that once before, prior to the 2015 season, but ended up changing his mind after tearing his Achilles tendon in Week 7.
This time, when asked about his future beyond Sunday, Smith said, “Football has given me more than I probably can give football back. For 2016-17 and beyond, it’s probably my last game.”
Probably? Pressed for something more definitive, Smith said, “Just let it be, bro.”
A minute later, Smith told of a symbolic message he received during practice.
“Today was pretty emotional out on the field,” he said. “It was a windy, and parts of the field were frozen. The sun was shining. It was confirmation today. God winked at me.”
Fiesty and fierce: Smith broke into the league in 2001 with Carolina and played with the Panthers for 13 seasons before coming to Baltimore in 2014.
A feisty, fierce competitor with a drive to win unmatched by few in the league, Smith has a knack for drawing praise from his teammates and ire from those who go up against him.
Carolina quarterback Cam Newton said Wednesday: “There’s not a lot guys that you look down a dark alley and say ‘I want to bring this person. I want to bring that person.’ But Steve Smith is one of those guys that you better make sure is on your team, and not against your team. I have seen both of them, and I would prefer him being on my team.”
Smith’s value to a team transcends mere grit and determination. He ranks seventh in NFL history with 14,697 yards receiving and is 12th with 1,028 receptions.
When the outcome of a game is hanging in the balance and a first down is needed, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco knows to look for Smith.
“Steve’s unbelievable. I have nothing but great things to say about him and my time spent with him,” Flacco said.
“His competitive nature and the way he plays this game and the talent that he has, he’s definitely unique and a rare breed. Any time you get a chance to play with a guy that’s really a legend in this game, count yourself lucky.”
Deal ends after this season: The three-year contract Smith signed with Baltimore ends after this season. So even if he comes back, that doesn’t mean it will be with the Ravens.
“Put it like this: I can really relate and understand what my son went through dropping him off at college,” Smith said.
“He was packing up to move on. It was hard for me, as I’m packing up my house here in Baltimore and putting my career in boxes. It’s tough. It’s emotional.”
Smith concedes that he’s lost a step, yet he leads the Ravens with five TD catches, ranks third with 67 receptions and second with 765 yards receiving.
“But I’m 37 years old and teams are still game-planning me,” Smith said. “It’s about playing. People can say I’m not as good as I used to be, but at the end of the day, there are teams hoping to draft a guy like me.”
The Ravens didn’t draft him, but after the Panthers did not attempt to re-sign Smith during the 2014 offseason, Baltimore jumped at the chance to get him.
“I would say that it’s been nothing but an honor, a privilege and a joy. Every single day, I look forward to it,” coach John Harbaugh said.
“He’s the kind of guy when I see him come in, I get excited because I’m like, ‘OK, what’s going to happen next? What’s he going to say? What’s he going to do?’”
Well, the same can be said on the topic of Smith’s future. What’s he going to do?
“It looked like he could keep playing,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said “Wow, 89 percent huh? Well, there’s an 11 percent chance. But he’s earned the right to decide when it’s time.”
Smith joked last summer about returning this year to get to 1,000 catches. At this point, those kinds of milestones are irrelevant.
“I’ve been playing with house money,” he said. “People say come back, get some statistics. I’ve got the best statistic ever — I played 16 years.”